Zhang Xiaogang and the 'nightmare' of Tiananmen
Images of decapitated bodies and severed limbs - how China's foremost artist reacted in paint to the events of 1989
Disquieting Memories, Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G. Xu’s excellent monograph on Zhang Xiaogang, expertly shows how this deeply sensitive artist was affected in his upbringing by the cultural revolution, and how his work gave expression to private memories and the interior life in a country in which public coercion was the order of the day. Having achieved some success in the 1980s, he was shaken to the core by the violent put-down of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. “I was pulled back into reality, awakened from my dreams,” he later recalled, and the art he produced in the immediate wake of the tragedy feels like that of man shattered by a horror dreadfully close to home.
Among the first works he produced in 1989 in response to the massacre were Reincarnation and Nightmare Series No. 1. These canvasses feature decapitated bodies and severed limbs, heads with expressions frozen aghast, in reproach or the agonies of death.
On December 31 1989, he completed New Year’s Eve. On the face of it, it seems like a continuation of a theme he developed in an earlier work, Last Dream: Man With A Crown Of Thorns, the pose of whose sitting figure alludes to el Greco’s portrait The Nobleman With His Hand On His Chest. In New Year’s Eve however, the same figure sitting fatefully before two playing cards and a dagger looks gaunt, staring out with Picasso eyes, the yellow of his complexion much bolder. It reflects the terrible change that has taken place in China, one which has cleaved history and left his previous work on the other side, in a past that seems now seems so distant and different. Eventually, Zhang would emerge even stronger as an artist but at this point, he seemed gripped by numb despair in the face of a deeply uncertain future.
For greater insight into the life and work of this important Chinese contemporary artist check out our great new book Disquieting Memories here. And if you want to get a greater knowledge about the Chinese art scene, past and present, take a look at The Chinese Art Book while you're in the store.